After 9 people are infected, Juneau urges all bar-goers to get tested

A woman in a white suit holds a blue surgical mask.
Katie Church, an RN at Bartlett Regional Hospital, demonstrates putting on personal protective equipment to handle a patient infected with COVID-19 on Monday, April 7, 2020 in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Juneau emergency management officials are considering escalating the community’s risk status — and restrictions with it — following a new cluster of COVID-19 cases.

They said bars and bar-like settings are particularly concerning. 

Emergency Planning Section Chief Robert Barr recommends everyone who has been in any Juneau bar between Aug. 24 and Sept. 7 get tested, even if they don’t have symptoms.  

“A number of these cases over the last 14 days tie back to, specifically, to a large social gathering that included guests at that gathering who work in bars,” Barr said. “So the bars have been contacted, a number of them have voluntarily closed to get their staff tested and cleared to return to work. … At this time, as of today,  thankfully, there hasn’t been any identified spread to patrons of bars.”

Devil’s Club Brewing CompanyThe Triangle and The Narrows all recently announced temporary closures after employees tested positive or were in close contact with someone who tested positive.

City Manager Rorie Watt got a little more specific about the gathering. He said they think one person with COVID-19 but without symptoms was at the gathering, where people weren’t wearing masks, which led to 9 cases. 

“We would like to get to a point where schools are an option, where not restricting businesses are an option,” Watt said. “And if we have people in the community that are having large social gatherings, whatever kind of gathering that is, and they’re indoors and they’re not wearing masks, I don’t know how to be any more blunt than to say that they are putting the well-being of the community at peril.”

Watt said emergency officials are “scrambling” as they consider their next move. He said they’re a lot closer to closing bars and further restricting businesses and gatherings than they were Sunday, though the voluntary closures helped relieve some pressure.

One number Robert Barr tracks to inform that decision is the positivity rate. That’s the percentage of tests that have come up positive over the last seven days, and it’s been trending up. On Tuesday, it was a little over 2%. 

“That’s a little bit higher than we like,” Barr said. “We like to see that less than 2%. A growing test positivity rate indicates there are cases out there we are not catching.” 

Barr said a lower positivity rate indicates there’s enough testing to detect the disease in the community. 

Barr and Watt spoke Tuesday, during local officials’ weekly update on COVID-19.

Correction: An earlier version of this story and headline overstated the number of cases linked to a single event. City officials on Wednesday said at least 9 cases were linked to the large gathering, not 19 as City Manager Rorie Watt said in Tuesday’s community update.

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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